Former President Barack Obama delivered a speech on the heart of Silicon Valley for Stanford University, blasting Big Tech for not doing enough to suppress alleged misinformation and calling for sweeping regulations on the way tech companies world. While both conservatives and progressives are more than willing to lambast tech giants for their influence in shaping public opinion, Obama’s tirade against big tech highlights what progressives get wrong: they are not upset because Big Tech is censoring, but because they are not censoring enough.
During his address, Obama noted that the way people acquire information has changed significantly over the last few years, saying that the proliferation of media outlets has led to a fragmentation of the media narrative and that people are no longer to “distinguish between fact, opinion, and wholesale fiction.”
He emphasized that the principal issue for the weakening of democracies is the “change in the way we communicate and consume information” and lamented that people no longer debate over the same set of shared facts as they did during the golden age of TV.
Obama argued that people use social media not only as “our window into the internet. They serve as our primary sources for news and information” but that the nature of social media has allowed disinformation to go rampant. For the former president, the answer for this is to force social media platforms, through government regulation and “democratic oversight” to pan down the spread of alleged misinformation.
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He argued that autocratic leaders like Vladimir Putin and former Trump strategist Steve Bannon undermine democracy as they “flood the public square with enough raw sewage” which would raise the doubts of people, making them lose their trust in “their leaders, mainstream media, in political institutions, in each other.”
There is no debate that big tech plays a big role in the way American public opinion is shaped, and both conservatives and liberals have questioned the power of tech titans to effectively shape the public agenda. However, Obama’s approach to Big tech is deeply problematic, as he appears to be willing to set the principle of free speech on fire in order to allegedly save democracy.
The issues with Obama’s tirade against big tech
The problem with Obama’s argument are the following: he assumes that media diversity is something new in America; he thinks that Big Tech has been too lenient in alleged misinformation; he absolves elites from their mistakes, and he forgets that accurate information has been suppressed in the name of a fight against misinformation.
The first issue is quite simple. Obama argues that Americans are consuming an unprecedented amount of media sources, in contrast to the curated, elite-driven narratives that were common during the golden era of TV. Nevertheless, Obama apparently forgot that history did not begin in the late half of the 20th century, since the media landscape during our early republican period was filled with a wide variety of partisan newspapers that spewed conspiracy theories that would make Obama shiver.
Actually, what’s truly new in America is not that there are a large variety of media outlets (that has always been true) but that all relevant sources of information work under platforms that are owned by a very small group of people. The real threat to democracy is not that there is too much speech, but that our digital public square is owned by very few companies.
For Obama, it is the spread of “misinformation” by malevolent actors the main reason that people are losing confidence in institutions. Is it misinformation that the American intelligence community provided faulty information in the lead-up to the Iraq War? Is it misinformation that financial institutions purposefully lied in the 2008 financial crisis? Is it misinformation that public health experts constantly flipped flop during COVID? Is it misinformation that the American military catastrophically mishandled the Afghan withdrawal?
The reason why people don’t trust the establishment is not due to a Machiavellian plan from Putin, but because the elites have done a terrible job since the end of the 1990s.
Obama argues that social media has allowed (either by mistake or on purpose) “misinformation” to flow free and that there have been not enough attempts to counter it. He is deeply wrong. Obama only needed to see how Twitter pre-emptively blocked the Hunter Biden laptop story even when they did not know if the story was false or not. The former president could further check how social media giants labeled any references to the lab leak theory as misinformation, or he could even try and find the Twitter/Facebook account of his successor in the Oval Office.
These examples not only cast doubt on Obama’s claim that social media has not done enough censorship but also raise two crucial counterpoints to his theory. First, suppressing “misinformation” will not do anything at actually stamp it out. If the theory of enforcing harsh suppression of alleged misinformation is correct, then why is Donald Trump still popular within the GOP after more than one year without a platform?
The second question, however, is even more important. Social media thought that the Hunter Biden laptop story and the lab leak theory were misinformation, they followed the intelligence and health “experts” who said so. Yet, it was later proved that the Hunter laptop was real and that the lab-leak theory is quite a reasonable one. In a few months, dangerous misinformation became respectable facts. How is Obama sure that one of the victims in a broad crackdown on “misinformation” will be truth itself?
Obama is right that big tech’s role in the public arena must change. But a shift towards even harsher “content moderation” (a euphemism for corporate censorship) directed by people who have repeatedly mislabeled facts as “misinformation,” will only alienate conservatives, even more, setting the country on an extremely volatile and dangerous path.
Daniel is a Political Science and Economics student from the University of South Florida. He worked as a congressional intern to Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) from January to May 2020. He also is the head of international analysis at Politiks // Daniel es un estudiante de Cs Políticas y Economía en la Universidad del Sur de la Florida. Trabajo como pasante legislativo para el Representate Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) desde enero hasta mayo del 2020. Daniel también es el jefe de análisis internacional de Politiks.